Building the Royal Albert Bridge

The opening of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge in May 1859 marked a turning point in Cornwall’s history. No longer cut off from the rest of the country by the wide, watery barrier of the River Tamar, from that moment on travel to the region became quicker and easier than ever before. Within just a few years the tendrils of track had pushed their way to the farthest corners of the Cornish peninsula.

When asked how long he expected the Royal Albert Bridge to last Isambard Kingdom Brunel replied “One hundred years”, now more than 150 years later I wanted to take a look at the mammoth effort and the ingenious skill that it took to construct this distinctive bridge.

It was no simple endeavour, there were false starts and design issues, there were angry objections and deaths but ultimately this audacious feat of engineering was completed to great fanfare and the Royal Albert has since been described as Brunel’s greatest masterpiece.

“Darwin told us where we came from, but it was Brunel who took us where we wanted to go.”

Jeremy Clarkson, BBC TV’s Greatest Britons.
royal albert bridge

The Cornwall Railway

There had been previous attempts to build a railway from the port of Falmouth to Plymouth in the 1840s but for some reason these plans had received scant public or financial support. However, with the “engineering genius” Brunel as the driving force the project gained momentum. Extending the rail network into Cornwall now seemed a realistic possibility.

“To describe Isambard’s approach as bold and imaginative seems like an understatement. The close tumbling hills and deep winding valleys [of Cornwall] brought out the best in him – his eye for the lie of the land and his unrivalled daring in bridge design.”

Adrian Vaughan, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1991.
Brunel pictured in front of the anchor chain of the Great Eastern. Source: Robert Howlett, 1857, Institution of Civil Engineers

Initially it was proposed that the all important and problematic crossing of the River Tamar should be achieved via a “train ferry” but this idea was rejected by the House of Lords in 1845. Next it was suggested that a bridge could be built at water level near the Hamoaze, however this was one of the widest parts of the river and crossing at sea level here would have meant that the trains had to haul themselves up a steep incline to the rolling Cornish hills beyond.

Finally Brunel submitted a bold and ambitious design for a high bridge upstream at Saltash where the crossing was not only narrower but where the track would also maintain height therefore reducing the strain on the engines.

The elegant, distinctive design that has become so familiar to us today was not how Brunel first envisaged the bridge however.

Royal Albert Bridge

The original plan was for a viaduct made up of a series of timber trusses carrying two lines of track 80ft (25m) above the high water mark. Though this design was initially approved in 1845 the Admiralty soon objected. They insisted that their ships needed at least 100ft (30m) clearance and also complained that the river should not be impeded by more than one pillar mid-stream, whereas Brunel’s original plan had included several spans with footings in the water.

It was back to the drawing board for the engineer.

And it was then that Brunel had the brainwave of combining his ship building skills with his designs for suspension bridges and the idea for a wrought iron viaduct was born.

It was to be tubular in design with two huge wrought iron tubes, each 1100ft (335m) long, supporting a single line of track with just one supporting pillar in the centre of the river.

Construction Under Pressure

Work got underway in January 1853. Mr C. J. Mare had agreed to build the bridge to Brunel’s design for £162,000. The on-land sections of the viaduct were completed first, seven spans on the Devon side and ten on the Cornish.

They also began putting together the huge caisson which Brunel called “my Great Cylinder” on the foreshore. This enormous, bottomless tube was to be used in the underwater construction of the great central pier that would support the two main spans of the bridge.

The caisson was 90ft (27m) tall and made of rivetted boiler plates. In May 1854 it was taken out mid-stream to exactly where the central pillar was to be built and gradually sunk. The tube cut down through 4 metres of thick riverbed mud before coming to rest on a solid shelf of greenstone beneath.

A caisson of Brunel design used in the construction of the London Underground

The tube was then pumped free of water, closed at the top and pressurised to keep the internal compartment relatively dry. A team of thirty men began working inside to dig out the tons of compacted oyster shell and mud before breaking into the greenstone to lay the bridge’s foundations.

Though an ingenious invention conditions for those working inside the caisson were far from pleasant. Like divers underwater the pressure added enormously to the strain of the work and when coming to the ‘surface’ the men would suffer with symptoms similar to the bends. This was extremely difficult and dangerous work and at least one man is thought to have died.

“Water was pumped out and air forced in and the men set to work as in a diving bell. But the labour was most sever. The excavation was carried on under a pressure of 38lbs to the inch which produced distressing symptoms and in one instance a fatal effect.”

John Murray, A Guide to Devon & Cornwall, 1859

To make matter worse as the team excavated the greenstone water would start pouring through fissures in the rock. It is said that the workers would hammer sheets of iron into the gaps to slow the flow enough so that the pumps had a chance to take the water away.

It took six years before the central pier began to rise above the water level of the river.

The Tubes

The two huge wrought iron tubes that supported the track were each 1100ft long and these two enormous sections, one for the Devon side and one for the Cornish, were also assembled on the foreshore.

The Albert Bridge under construction in 1858

On the 1st September 1857 the first was ready to be moved into position in the river before being slowly raised inch by inch by hydraulic jack to its final level. The day was declared a public holiday for the people of Saltash, Plymouth and Devonport. There were food stalls, flags on the streets and the churches even rang their bells in celebration. Huge crowds gathered in the water’s edge to watch the first tube being floated out onto the water and positioned between the masonry pillars.

According to the newspaper reports there was absolute silence as Brunel signalled instructions to the master of the vessel out on the river using a system of red, blue and white flags.

“The sight of the gigantic structure gliding so gracefully from it’s resting place on the waters of the Tamar by means apparently so simple but yet, on examination, so complicated was indeed one which will be long remembered by those who had the good fortune to witness it. . . The operation of floating the Tube into its position occupied little more than two hours and as the tide fell the pontoons sank from under their load . . . Several of the visitors afterwards ranged over the roadway and on the piers and some men ventured on the top of the Tube. One poor fellow, unconnected with the works, in displaying his bravery unfortunately missed his footing and fell over the Tube against the struts and into the river . . . he died the next morning. Not withstanding the immense mass of people assembled – estimated by some at about 50,000 – this was the only accident.”

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 4th September 1857
royal albert bridge

It took a further 10 months for the section to be slowly hoisted into place and it was then followed by its twin. Two more years of work passed before the bridge was ready to be opened by its royal namesake.

Opening the Royal Albert Bridge

“The Royal Albert was [Brunel’s] masterpiece, in which he brought together his experience of riveting wrought iron, of ships, of tubular construction and of the suspension bridge principle.”

Adrian Vaughan, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1991

The morning that the Royal Albert Bridge opened, 2nd May 1859, dawned dry though not particularly sunny but nothing could dampen the spirits of the thousands that crowded the banks on both sides of the Tamar. Special trains had been laid on from Truro and Exeter to bring people to witness the inauguration (unfortunately the train from Truro actually broke down on its way up and the Mayor of Truro missed the whole event!).

Wooden platforms were erected on either side of the viaduct for the arrival of the Royal party and the local elite to stand and wait. At about 12.15pm there was the sound of distant booming when a gun salute was fired from the flag ship in the harbour below, signalling the arrival from London of the Royal train.

The Prince briefly addressed the crowd from the steps of his carriage on the Devon side before the train trundled across to flag waving and another gun salute. Albert then alighted from the train at Saltash and he and a group of officials walked back across the bridge “minutely examining the works”. His Royal Highness, the Prince Consort gave a further speech during which he officially declared the Royal Albert Bridge to be open to loud cheers from the gathered crowds before he descended to water level to inspect beneath the construction from HM Gunboat Vivid.

The Royal Albert Bridge quickly became a tourist attraction and a site of engineering wonder.

Mr John Murray, who published a guide for travellers to Devon and Cornwall in 1859, wrote that “this extraordinary viaduct” for “novelty and ingenuity of construction stands unrivalled in the world.”

“Mr Brunel stands forth as the veritable Cornish giant who, leaving Tregeagle to his work of weaving ropes of sand, has reared on a point far below the level of the Tamar and it’s bed, such a structure as the Royal Albert Bridge.”

John Murray, 1859

The entire work, which measured 2200ft (670m) long from end to end, cost in the final reckoning £225,000, significantly over budget, which meant that some of the viaducts in Cornwall which Brunel had planned to build in stone were built with wooden trestle spans instead to save money.

The old viaduct in Truro

Though cheaper initially over the years these timber frames required continuous maintenance and they were gradually replaced. The first to go was the one at Probus in 1871 and the last was the Collegewood Viaduct on the Falmouth line which wasn’t replaced until 1934.

Author’s Note: My grandmother had to regularly cross the Collegewood viaduct as a child and she remembered the timbers creaking and groaning as the train went slowly across with all the passengers holding their breaths!

A Sad Endings at the Start

By the time the Royal Albert Bridge had been completed Brunel was too ill to attend the opening of his masterpiece but later, still unable to stand, he was pulled slowly across while lying on a coach which was perched on a carriage truck drawn by a locomotive.

He died a few months later and as a memorial to him his name and the date were painted at each end of the bridge where they can still be seen to this day.

Sadly tragedy also struck just four days after the opening of the bridge when the 7.25pm train from Plymouth left the rails while on the approach to St Germans station.

The first timetable, Cornish Times, 6th May 1859

The engine struck the parapet of the Grove viaduct before plunging into the mud below taking two of the passenger coaches with it. Several passengers were badly injured and the driver, Henry Biscombe of Calstock, the fireman, a man called Hannaford and one guard, William Hosken, were all killed.

The tragedy could have been much worse however if not for the second guard, Richard Paddon’s quick thinking. Fortunately Paddon had thrown on the rear break when he realised that something was wrong and saved the rear carriages from being taken over the edge too. He was awarded £5 for his actions.

Taking Their Lives in Their Hands

Another small but telling detail that I learnt during my research for this article also came after the bridge had opened.

royal albert bridge

It was reported that, rather than pay for the ferry, which was still running beneath the shadow of the new railway bridge but had become less frequent, the local population on either side of the Tamar were taking their lives in their hands and walking along the new track.

The fact that they were trespassing as well as running the risk of being struck by a train seems to have made little difference. It became a regular thing for Saltash people to use the Royal Albert Bridge to cross the river, in more ways than one.

Final Thoughts

There can be little doubt of Brunel’s genius, he was a man well before his time yet it is perhaps hard for us to appreciate now the boldness of his design for his bridge at Saltash. And while we heap praise on this one man it is important to remember the hard work and sacrifice of the men who made his dreams reality.

The opening of the bridge and the arrival of the railway had profound effect on the lives of ordinary Cornish folk, both for good and for ill, but I think it is fair to say the the bridge itself to this day is universally admired as a gateway into Cornwall.

During World War II when the Royal Albert Bridge was around 90 years old it became a prime target for German bombers. It was painted grey to try and camouflage it and, despite both Plymouth and Saltash being heavily bombed, miraculously the bridge survived.

Let’s hope it is still with us for many more years to come, perhaps we will even be able to celebrate its 200th birthday in 2059 thus proving its engineer wrong once again!

Further Reading

Borderlands – Crossing the River Tamar

Burial Place of Theodore Paleologus – Soldier, Assassin & Descendant of the Last Byzantine Emperor

Mary Newman of Saltash – Wife of Sir Francis Drake

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2 thoughts on “Building the Royal Albert Bridge

  1. What a fascinating tale! I had no idea why the bridge is grey.
    It might be apocryphal but I remember reading that the train driver for the first journey was so scared that he spent several hours in the pub before the journey!

    I mentioned that in A Cornish Almanack (May 4th, page 138).

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